I

The white panel truck nearly hit Riho on its way out of the parking lot. She barely jumped back in time, only belatedly realizing that she'd leapt all the way across the street to land poised in a pantherlike crouch. Her hindbrain was screaming threat-response messages like "Kill it! Tear it apart!"

Vampire instincts were sometimes scary.

"Geez, I'm glad no one was around to see that, Riho. Why not pick up a car and fling it next time? It wouldn't be any more obvious. Though where that guy got his license from, I can't imagine."

Riho smoothed down her skirt. She had to learn better control of herself, if she was ever going to be a useful partner instead of a glorified office clerk. Shido needed to be able to count on her!

They went upstairs to the office, where Riho was surprised to see they had a visitor, a young man in a delivery driver's coveralls and cap.

"Can I he" she started, but the -lp you? was cut off when she realized the man was rooting through Shido's desk. "Hey, you, what do you think you're doing?"

II

Ken straightened up suddenly at the girl's voice; he hadn't even heard her come in. Fetching little thing, sixteen or so, though with the kind of cute face that would always look young so she might actually be older than she seemed. Her hair was long, done up in a blue ribbon and let fall in a waist-length foxtail. She had on a kind of Gothy red skirt with a spiderweb pattern but the bright yellow underdress made her look brighter and happier.

Cute.

"Looks like I got lucky by staying behind after all" he said, taking out his gun. "I guess you're the bloodsucker's receptionist or something? Show me where he keeps his case records and maybe you won't get what we're giving your boss."

"What have you done to Mr. Shido?"

"I'd be thinking more about what I'm gonna do to you if you don't cooperate, girl."

She was across the room and on him before he even had time to think, let alone fire. One of her hands grabbed his wrist and nearly broke it wrenching the gun away. The other seized him by the throat, lifted him up off his feet, and slammed him into the wall.

"What have you done to Mr. Shido?"

Her eyes were glowing gold and inhuman; every time her mouth opened to speak he saw fangs. Ken fished his cross out of his pocket and shoved it in her face. She completely ignored it and bounced him off the wall again.

"Tell me where he is!" she screamed.

It took roughly five minutes for her to wrench out the information of who, what, where, and why. As Shido had pointed out, when Riho wanted something, she was a very determined girl.

III


Please answer, please answer!
Riho thought as the phone rang. After the third buzz, there was a sharp click.

"Matsunaga here."

"Ms. Yayoi, thank goodness!"

"Riho, is that you?"

"You've got to help Mr. Shido! The gang members who were working with that breed from last night came back and kidnapped him while he was asleep! They're going to kill him for revenge."

Instantly Yayoi was all business, dropping her usual flirtatious pose.

"Do you know where they've taken him? How many there are?"

"It's an abandoned factory they use as a hideout." She gave Yayoi the address. "There should be three gang members there."

"All right. You're between me and the factory, so I'll pick you up on the way. Be downstairs, though, because I'm not going to waste time waiting."

"Yes, Ms. Yayoi."

"You ought to have her call an ambulance for our fearless vampire hunter, here" Guni remarked. "It's not like I care or anything, but he's going to make a mess of the rug."

IV

"It's gonna be sunset in another half hour or so" Toshi declared.

"Where the hell is Ken, anyway?" Gentaro asked. He'd stayed behind to keep an eye on the furnace, which was as touchy as it was old. Already its flames were giving more light than the sun, which could be seen only dimly through the small, high, dirty windows and skylights.

"Wimp's probably staying behind on purpose," Nabuo said. "I doubt he's got the stomach for this."

"Maybe there was a silent alarm and the cops got him."

"All the more reason to do this now," Toshi declared. He turned to the bench where he'd set out the tools of the trade: stake, hammer, a bag of garlic, and a rusty hand saw. The leaping flames cast weird shadows across the instruments of murder as he picked up a stake.

Shido's sleep was troubled.

The humans are our prey, Shido," Cain's deep, silken voice echoed through his mind. "Your foolish empathy cannot change that. Can a lion put on horns and become a gazelle?"

"I still have a human heart."

Cain's laughter, rich and deep.

"A human heart? What is that? A weak thing, driven by fear or by love to one irrational act after another. It is our place to prey on them, but they prey on themselves by choice. You should be glad the 'human heart' you speak of is only your own delusion."

He saw the night breed he'd last killed howling from its two mouths.

"Kill him! Kill the NOS freak!"

He saw the two young men raise their guns and start firing at once, without a doubt or a second thought.

"I've hurt no one that this boy did not want to kill."

Then Yayoi: "I know you want to save humans from the darkness, but there's nothing you can do if they step into it of their own will."

Of their own will.

Like Riho. She'd begged him to take her blood, to make her like him. She'd wanted it so badly, and because she'd been bleeding out from the wound Cain had inflicted, he'd given in, brought her into the darkness with him. For all his talk about people meeting and parting, losing her would have torn a hole in his spirit.

What would happen when the scales finally dropped from her eyes and she at last realized he'd condemned her to a dark eternity far different than what she'd imagined? He'd seen some of it already, when she'd had to cope with giving up her school, her old friends; Riho the vampire lacked, somehow, that essential joy possessed by Riho the living girl. What if it wasn't just the momentary shock of adjustment, but something permanent she'd lost?

What if it would have been kinder to let her die? Had he done something worse than just kill? The light was temporary and fleeting, the darkness forever. Eternal life was just an eternity of chances to take a wrong step.

V

Toshi positioned the stake carefully, slipping it between two buttons on the vampire's shirt so the point rested against bare flesh. He raised the hammer to swing.

Shido's eyes snapped open and he wrenched the stake away from the boy. A blow from his other hand sent the banger sprawling.

He could be such an idiot sometimes. Centuries of unlife and he still fell into the same stupid traps of thought. Lying there asleep while his subconscious mind argued out whether or not it was worth it to wake up and save himself? It was lucky Guni wasn't there, or he'd never hear the end of his doing something so inane.

"He's awake! What the f-" Shido knocked the second punk sprawling before he could add profanity to his list of sins.

The last of the three stuck his hand into his pocket and came up with a weapon. Not a gun, which was something at least. From the whole wooden-stake routine it was obvious they knew he was a vampire-how?-and Shido didn't think he could tolerate the old cliche of the ignorant mortal emptying a gun into the undead.

Not that the silver crucifix was any more productive. Shido snatched it out of his hand and tossed it aside.

"What is this nonsense?" he asked, almost pleasantly.

"Y-you killed Hiro last night. We were gonna make you pay."

The three of them were wearing the same rock-band T-shirts as the kids from the alley. In fact, the one who'd held the stake actually was one of those kids, now that Shido took a second look.

"So it's revenge, then. What a stupid reason to throw away your lives. The night breeds murder and lie, seduce and steal to obtain the light, and you willingly abandon it after less than twenty years."

"Mr. Shido!"

One of the skylights exploded into a rain of glass as Riho plunged through it, playing out her own bloodwhip between her fingers to control her descent. A moment later Yayoi emerged from the shadows with her NOS-issue automatic in hand, its integrated underbarrel light marking out the still-conscious banger.

"Mr. Shido, you're all right!" Riho caroled.

"Really, Shido, I know you're a dedicated detective, but the breed is dead. You could have left this to the police instead of using yourself as bait to round up these lackeys."

"Riho, Yayoi, thank you."

Guni fluttered up.

"What are you thanking them for? We obviously missed all the fun."

"That doesn't matter." And it didn't, really. The fact that he had three people in his life who would come crashing in to save him, risking their own lives, that mattered. "Come on; we've wasted enough time on these people."

"You go on without me," Yayoi said. "I'll call in the NOS to clean up. We know how to deal with those 'Oh, no, he's a vampire!' kind of claims."

"And you should have lots of backup soon; I think you blew through about six speed traps on the way over." Yayoi glared, and Guni dove into her customary hiding place inside Shido's hair.

"All right; we'll meet you back at the office," Shido said, ignoring the by-play. Riho fell into step beside him, and he slipped an arm around her shoulders as they stepped out into the night air.

Yes, there's darkness within the light, he thought, but you can find a light within the darkness as well. Maybe that's what a "human heart" really means.